For Catholic Ball Fans, a Good Friday Choice

David Briggs | Religion News Service | Friday, March 27, 2009

For Catholic Ball Fans, a Good Friday Choice

March 30, 2009

In a profound conflict of sacred and secular traditions, thousands of Christians who are urged to solemnly commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday (April 10) afternoon are being tempted by an alternative spring ritual: the cry of "Play ball."

Four Major League Baseball teams -- the Detroit Tigers, Colorado Rockies, Kansas City Royals and Milwaukee Brewers -- have scheduled games during the midday time window that's considered by many the most solemn period of the Christian calendar.

Religious leaders say they don't expect Americans to return to an age of shuttered shops and businesses on Good Friday, but they question whether baseball teams could not have been more respectful of religious sensitivities.

In Detroit, where about a third of the region's population is Catholic, the Tigers' decision to schedule a baseball game at 1:05 p.m. on Good Friday is "insult upon injury," said the Rev. Ed Vilkauskas, pastor of Old St. Mary Church in the city.

In a tradition rooted in Scripture and dating back to the 4th century, millions of Christians will pause between noon and 3 p.m. on Good Friday to reflect, personally and communally, on the sacrificial act of Jesus' death on the cross that is a cornerstone of Christian faith.

At 3 p.m. services in many Catholic churches, the faithful will, one by one, kneel, genuflect or bow before a wooden cross. Some will kiss or touch a figure of the crucified Christ in an intimate rite of connection.

At the same time, baseball has its own traditions that need to be respected, some clubs say.

Jay Alves, spokesman for the Colorado Rockies, said the team considered changing the typical starting time of its Opening Day game on Good Friday from 2:10 p.m., but decided against it since some churches have services in the evening.

"We really were unable to pick a start time that was appropriate for every single person," he said. "There was no good time to start the game on Good Friday."

Officials for the Tigers did not respond to phone calls and e-mails, but a team spokesman told Detroit newspapers the home opener is always an early day game. "The NBA plays on Christmas and so does the NFL," a Tigers spokesman told The Michigan Catholic.

That argument fails on two counts, Vilkauskas said. First, just because everyone is doing it doesn't make it right, and second, Christmas is a festival of celebration, while Good Friday is a somber day calling for personal sacrifice.

"We don't celebrate a death in the family like a birthday," Vilkauskas said.

Some teams have responded to concerns of religious leaders. Two years ago, the Cleveland Indians moved the start of its Opening Day game on Good Friday to 4:05 p.m. The team again this year will begin play at 4:05 p.m. on Good Friday.

The 11 other Major League games on Good Friday do not conflict with traditional mid-day observances.

Monsignor Thomas Fryar, pastor of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Denver, said he is particularly concerned about the ballplayers, security guards and other stadium workers who have little choice but to work on the afternoon of Good Friday.

For the fans, however, choosing between baseball and church on Good Friday is an opportunity to be a witness to their faith and the values of self-sacrifice for a greater good, church leaders said.

"Here's the challenge," said Monsignor Anthony Sherman, who oversees the worship office for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington. "If (believers) really want to stand up for their faith, they can go to the service at 3 p.m."

Lisa Tarker, executive director of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions, said she would be in church on the afternoon of Good Friday -- even if she were offered the opportunity to throw out the first pitch on Opening Day.

"I could never see myself making that choice. It would never even be an option," Tarker said. "I would hope that someone's Catholic identity took precedence over being a fan of a certain team."

Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. Used by permission. All rights reserved.